Growing up in rural Mecklenburg County in the ’60s, we enjoyed the new frontier of television as we watched local and national news on three to four television stations. Remote controls did not exist; to change the channel, you walked up to the television and rotated the channel knob to reach the next available station. The national stations were on channels 3, 5, and 9, but for real excitement, we switched over to UHF channel 18 to enjoy an international “flavor” of programming. One particular sport on the channel 18 that caught my interest was rugby. I remember fast, stocky players dressed in shorts and jerseys, playing in front of packed stadiums across Europe.
I spent my youth watching NFL games and sensed that football must have originated from rugby. I loved how players dashed down the field, carrying a ball similar to a football, lateraling off to a teammate every few steps, lowering their head to smash through a tackling opponent, all without pads and helmets. In my mind, rugby was a great sport, and I admired the skill and voracity of the players. Over time, cable networks replaced UHF channels as news, weather, and especially sports dominated the airways. I loved the profusion of college football games on Saturday afternoons, and I could enjoy the spectacle lying on the couch, wallowing in game day snacks like a pig in mud, changing stations with a remote control. The years passed by, and the game of rugby became a distant memory.
Two years ago, I noticed a sign along Highway 21 when returning home from a trip to Charlotte. The bold neon green letters simply stated, “Experience Rugby” with a phone number underneath. Weeks later, I took the sign up on its message, contacted Lex Ames, the president of Columbia Rhinos Rugby Club, and scheduled to photograph a fall game at the Owens Field Complex.
My first impression when viewing players was of their size and athleticism. I spent a few minutes before the game practicing speed focusing and preparing for the fast action soon to start. A cloud of dust soon surrounded the action on the parched, bare field. I noticed similarities to the game of football, as each team struggled to cross their opponent’s goal line. I saw players’ elbows and knees bleeding from on-field collisions, and often the medical staff huddled around a player lying on his back as they assessed the injury. Some collisions sounded similar to the sound of a distant axe striking a tree. Most of the players were older than I imagined and seemed to range from 30 to 40 years in age. I grew an instant respect for the players on the field and wondered why players are willing to sacrifice themselves to a game that demands so much from their bodies?
“That’s just rugby,” Lex explained later. Lex has been president of the Columbia Rhinos Rugby Club for the past five years. Lex loved playing baseball, basketball, and football as a youth and played lacrosse for the University of Missouri. In 1995, Lex watched the Rugby World Cup from a bar in South Africa, and the game’s attraction stuck with him. Lex has a doctorate in English and teaches at USC. He was looking for a physical challenge and decided to give rugby a try.
“Once you cross the white line, you go all out for your side. You play for your teammates and put your body on the line for each other. You have butterflies before the opening kickoff, but that goes away after the first contact in the game.” Butterflies were nowhere to be found on several instances when player collisions resembled meeting the club’s mascot head-on. I’m not a sports photographer by any stretch of the imagination, and in spite of missing focus on countless images, I was amazed at the results I did get from this game and wanted to return for additional opportunities.
On my return for the next game, I looked forward to photographing the first game of a doubleheader featuring the women’s team of Columbia — The Columbia Bombshells. No letdown of physicality occurred as the effort, collisions, strategy, and injuries were on the same level as those of the men. In today’s game, previous rains had soaked the fields, and players enjoyed a game in the backdrop of an old-fashioned mud bath. This environment made me appreciate the level of rugby played in Columbia; Columbia’s sports scene is further expanded knowing we can rally behind and show our loyalty for teams playing a different sport, giving our family a unique entertainment perspective outside of the professional or college teams we support.
For background to help you understand the game when you attend locally, rugby originated in England in the early 1800s as a variation of soccer. Rules of rugby were adopted in 1871 by the Rugby Football Union. Rugby is played by 15 players on each team, playing two halves, 40 minutes each. The object of the game is obviously scoring more points than the opponent. The rugby ball resembles the shape of a football and can be carried and kicked forward. The ball cannot be passed forward, but there are many backward or side-laterals on the field of play. Interestingly, blocking for a teammate is not allowed in rugby, with an infraction penalty for trying to do so.
Scores are tallied by crossing the opponent’s try zone, or goal line, and five points are awarded for touching the ball to the ground. Kicks after scores are tallied by kicking the ball through goal posts for two points. The rules of rugby dictate hard helmets and pads are not allowed, though occasionally soft head pads show up in some games. Advancing ball carriers can be tackled by the opposition, and once tackled, the ball must be “fumbled” immediately backward on the ground. Being overly aggressive is not allowed within the game, and referees dictate the game is played within rules established by the Rugby Football Union.
A “scrum” is a common occurrence during a game in which forwards from each team bunch together and clasping arms, lower their heads, forming a scrum. The scrum ensues when the team with the ball is served with a rule infraction, such as fumbling, dropping, or passing the ball forward. The game referee ensures the scrum is organized correctly, and makes certain the ball is properly advanced within the scrum. Eight total players from each team form three rows of players within the scrum, and the team with possession rolls the ball into the scrum. Players from both teams attempt to roll the ball backward with their feet, towards the back player in the scrum. Once the back players pick up the ball, the game resumes. The scrum is one of the most unusual formations in all of sports, and the dynamics and energy within the scrum are a sight to see, as 16 athletes surge against each other.
Another interesting play is the “lineout.” The lineout restarts play after the ball falls out of the field of play — the touchline. Forwards from each team assemble in a line on each side, where one team’s hooker throws the ball forward to the middle. Each team uses various formations to lift players up, retrieve the ball, and put it back in play. It’s wild to see players sitting on other players’ shoulders 10 feet in the air, trying to deflect the ball towards a teammate.
I can’t leave the topic of terminology without mentioning the “sin bin.” A player who commits a serious infraction must visit the sin bin, a penalty box, to sit out the game for 10 minutes without being replaced. Just the name “sin bin” conjures up all sorts of thoughts, and I might use that term the next time one of our granddaughters needs a “timeout.”
Present day sports teams don’t resemble the teams of even a few years ago. Currently, college athletes can choose a team to play for on a moment’s notice via transfer protocol, and players earn income from NIL contracts with local businesses. Times do change, I understand, but it doesn’t foster the same loyalty and bonds as teams of the past. Let’s support our local rugby clubs and experience a game simply played for the love of the game itself. Take the family to see a game of rugby, and your support to our local clubs helps continue building bonds within a group of men and women proud to wear the uniforms of Columbia Rugby clubs. The athletes lay it all out on the field and don’t even blink when asked why they play such a physical game. You’ll appreciate the respect and friendship each team shows their opponent in the handshake line after each game. Odds are these players wrap up the day with the traditional “third half” at a local pub with friends, fellow players, and opponents. When asked what Columbia could do to help grow the game of rugby, Lex replied, “Our clubs are proud to represent the City of Columbia. We appreciate the fans who show their support for rugby, and we play with pride for Columbia.”